Mandarin Oriental stands by Japan produce

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Every day, crates from Japan filled with still-wriggling live fish, coral-colored lobes of uni (sea urchin) and seafood fastidiously wrapped in paper smeared with wasabi (to discourage bacteria) arrive at the Michelin-starred French restaurant Amber at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Executive chef Richard Ekkebus carefully inspects this precious cargo before using the fish, along with an array of other Japanese delicacies, to create some of his signature dishes: lobster gelee topped with creamy Hokkaido sea urchin and black caviar, crispy-skinned amadai (sea bream) served with an airy bouillabaisse mousse, and tender pork belly from Yamagata with stuffed morel mushrooms.

Ekkebus is one of many top chefs across the globe whose enthusiasm for Japanese ingredients — in particular fish, meat and produce — remains strong despite fears of potential radiation contamination. In New York City, chef Masayoshi Takayama of the famously expensive sushi restaurant Masa proudly continues to import most of his seafood from Japan, while Chicago chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran recently traveled to Japan to scout ingredients for an upcoming Kyoto-themed dinner menu at the uber-trendy experimental restaurant Next.

Ekkebus has been using Japanese products for over seven years and says that they have become a cornerstone of his menu at Amber, which is one of only six restaurants in Asia to rank among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list released this April by Restaurant Magazine.

“I was always extremely impressed with the quality of the seafood, particularly because everything was line-caught, which is something very important to me,” he tells The Japan Times. “It’s not just something nice to mention on the menu, it’s a sustainable method of fishing and also enhances the quality of the fish.”

Japanese food products, which frequently command high prices, have long had a reputation for excellence among chefs and consumers. Immediately after the triple-disaster last year, however, many began to take a different view of Japanese ingredients. The United States was the first country to halt imports of milk and fresh produce from areas around the crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, prompting other governments to take similar precautionary action. Subsequently, the European Commission began obliging Japanese exporters to submit certificates of origin and proof of radiation testing, while countries such as India, China, Malaysia and Brazil imposed total embargoes.

Import restrictions have recently eased somewhat, but experts predict that they will remain in place for the foreseeable future. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 16 countries around the world now entirely or partially ban the import of food produced in Japan. A further 52 countries and regions are exercising some form of import control, such as mandatory radiation screening.

Although food exports account for only a fraction of overall revenue for farmers and fishermen, the effect on some Japanese producers has been significant. Between January and October 2011, agricultural and marine exports dropped 8.2 percent, with exports to China falling by 35.5 percent.

The panic also took a toll on restaurants serving Japanese products or cuisine, which were hit especially hard in the short term. “A lot of Japanese restaurants almost went out of business,” Ekkebus recalls. “I actually wrote something on Facebook where I invited my friends to go out at least once to a Japanese restaurant during the time.”

Chefs such as Ekkebus and Olivier Rodriguez, of the Michelin-starred restaurant Signature at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Tokyo, felt that the threats were overblown, partly due to sensationalist media coverage of the situation, and defended Japanese food products even at the height of the crisis.

“I read French papers every day, and (the reporting) wasn’t fair,” says Rodriguez. “They made it sound like all of Japan was contaminated.”

As the father of a small child, he understands the safety concerns and exercises caution when purchasing fresh ingredients, but he believes that the measures in place are sufficient to protect his guests.

“The Mandarin has very strict policies and we are able to trace everything and prove that it’s safe,” he notes.

Just over a year after the disaster, food-industry professionals around the world say that consumer confidence has largely rebounded. Chef Michael Ryan, of the acclaimed restaurant The Provenance in Beechworth, Victoria, in Australia, has no qualms about purchasing kombu (seaweed), rice and sakekasu (sake lees) from Japan and believes that the initial concerns about radioactivity have mostly subsided.

New York restaurateur Adam Greene observes that many diners and local restaurants have expressed the desire to support Japan and are continuing to buy Japanese food products as a result. The nuclear issue hasn’t affected his personal shopping habits at all.

“Do I still consume Japanese products? Absolutely,” he says.

Both Ekkebus and Rodriguez are doing what they can to spread awareness about the quality and the safety of Japanese food products. Last month, at the end of a five-day stint as guest chef at Signature, Ekkebus traveled to Fukuoka, where he sources much of his seafood, to meet with government officials and show his support for local producers. At the same time, Rodriguez made a TV appearance to promote artisanal cheese-makers in Hokkaido.

“Chefs create food trends,” notes Ekkebus. “So we need to keep sourcing from Japan.”